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Conversing with Elizaphanian: Metamorphosis and Stasis

Is there a stable place to rest at the end of the progressive path?

This is the question posed by Elizaphanian (The Revd Sam Norton) on January 25th, and which I have been mulling over ever since. I suggest you read the whole post, but among other things he says the following:

 Western society has embarked upon a radical restructuring of its cultural life in three inter-related issues, to do with homosexuality, marriage and divorce, and the economic role of women. The classical understanding of the church, that sexuality is only to be expressed within a heterosexual marriage, has been widely abandoned…The church has been caught up in this cultural change and is now at risk of opprobrium and worse if it does not, in David Cameron’s ill-chosen words, ‘get with the programme’…The RC stance…has proven workable for thousands of years…Does the progressive, secular, post-Protestant form of Christianity have a destination?…Having said all that, I remain quite open to the idea that the Spirit is genuinely behind all these developments…and I certainly can’t see our society reversing many of them. Yet, as I also see our society as heading down the tubes with great rapidity, I don’t see that latter point as bearing much theological weight. I genuinely don’t know the answer to this, but it is what I am thinking about.

The short answer to the question.

My short answer to this question is ‘No’.

The slightly longer answer

First, it must be said that the question is perfectly understandable, and is widely being asked. The inference is that if the progressive path cannot offer a stable place to rest, it is unreasonable to expect the general public to follow the path.

The question is not a new one, and nor is my answer. Heraclitus, for one, got there first: All is flux, nothing stays still or, in other words, Nothing endures but change.

Differing roles of God and the Church

Since the dawn of time, one of the reasons people have believed in the gods is that life seems full of capricious change. One or more supreme beings seem to offer the only possibility of stability. We pray: ‘ protect us through the silent hours of this night, so that we, who are wearied by the changes and chances of this fleeting world, may repose upon thy eternal changelessness‘.

Over the years, the Church has seemed to represent the deity in offering a haven of stability. It is easy to see how God and the Church have become confused in the psyche of churchgoers, but the Church is a human institution and is not in a position to offer ‘eternal changelessness’. To do so would be like trying to ride a bicycle without moving – you would soon fall off.

There is no advice in the Bible about how to manage the Church after 2,000 years of history (unless you know otherwise?). St Paul’s epistles are full of advice to churches which are newly set-up and, although much of it still applies to us, the task that we face in the 21st century is, I suggest, that of enabling the mighty, rushing wind of the Holy Spirit to blow through the dusty corners  of the Church, and not to try and keep it out by means of draught excluders.

Does the Holy Spirit offer a stable place to rest?

Possibly. From time to time.  But ‘he is not a tame lion, you know‘. And my hunch is that, after a very long period in which the Church has tried to plug the leaking dike and hold back the sea, in a period of stasis, the time has now come for metamorphosis.’Not for ever by still waters, would we idly rest and stay. But would smite the living fountains from the rocks along our way.‘ Psalm 104:10 He makes springs pour water into the ravines; it flows between the mountains.Psalm 105:41 He opened the rock, and water gushed out; like a river it flowed in the desert. Psalm 107:35 He turned the desert into pools of water and the parched ground into flowing springs;Psalm 114:8 who turned the rock into a pool, the hard rock into springs of water.

I also think that in this life there is no room for ‘changelessness’: this is something we are promised in the hereafter. But for now there is work to be done.

Do we know where the progressive path will lead us?

No, we don’t entirely. We know where we would like it to take us as soon as possible – the raising of women to the episcopate, the inclusion of LGBT people, and the empowerment of the laity. In shorthand, a Church of all the talents.

But there will be unforeseen and unintended consequences. Unforeseen and unintended by us, that is. I wonder what God wants?

The illustration is Heraclitus (c.1630) by Johannes Moreelse (c. 1603–1634) via Wikimedia

17 comments on this post:

preacherwoman said...

I agree, Laura. Our society may be ‘heading down the tubes’ with great rapidity’ – but all societies have done that and will continue to do so. Does the progressive form of Christianity have a destination? Yes it does! Its destination is a fuller and more authentic life, following the teaching of Christ, without the weight of much of the baggage it has picked up on the way from secular society and the institutional church. Insofar as these have tended to obscure our appreciation of the radical, universal, inclusive teaching of Jesus about the Reign of God, they are no loss.

Lay Anglicana said...

Well, that’s two of us who agree! Thank-you preacherwoman. 🙂

18 February 2013 17:45
18 February 2013 17:40
Erika Baker said...

I worry about the idea that the RC stance has been workable for thousands of years. Everything based on power is “workable” to an extent. But the reality of Western Catholicism is that the acceptance is in words only. In reality, Catholics have no different social profiles from the rest of us.

I think what we are seeing are still the outworkings of our better economic situation and the many labour saving devices that mean that we don’t have to spend most of our day working simply to keep standing still, of the awareness that women are equal and of contraception, which means that we are no longer compelled to have large families but that we can plan our lives better and more individualistically.

Matthew Caminer asked a similar question on his Facebook not long ago and I hope he won’t mind me copying my answer here:
I think a big shift has been the move to having to justify right or wrong more than we used to. We are no longer content with the idea that absolute morals keep a firm track for society but that they also cause a lot of incidental suffering that just has to be accepted. When we are faced with difficult moral questions of whether, say, euthanasia can be right at times or whether the absolute “we must not kill” must prevail, we are no longer simply willing to dismiss the individual suffering in favour of obeying the abstract commandment. The commandment has to justify itself, as it were.
In the past, it was ok to rape your wife but it was not ok to have sex before marriage. Now we are more likely to teach our children the value of genuine relationships – and that translates into not raping your wife but having protected sex in genuinely longed for relationships.

The new way of doing morals is more demanding of the individual (in theory). And yes, it is more individualistic. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. After all, one of the jewels of our faith is the amazing free will God has given us together with the responsibility that each one of us will be answerable for how we lived.

I don’t think we have the option of returning to a mythical past where everything was better, because you only need to read Charles Dickens to know that it wasn’t actually better at all, just more structured.

Our new individualism is throwing up new problems we will have to solve. Teenage pregnancy is one of them the high abortion rate, the prevalence of pornography, casual binge drinking even among the very young – there are indeed many problems associated with our new found freedom!
But back to the future is not the answer.

Lay Anglicana said...

Thank-you Erika. I must say it feels as if tectonic plates are shifting. I don’t think the Church can hold back change, even if it tried. It remains to be seen what will happen under the new Archbishop of Canterbury but I think he does promise change, even if it is not in all the areas in which we would like it.

Erika Baker said...

I’m not even sure we ought to hold back change. Equality and freedom are valuable goods in themselves, they deserve to be pursued. It would be much better if the church could align itself with that change and help to manage it as morally as possible with as little social fragmentation as possible. If the church was one of the architects its theology and its moral concerns could help tremendously to help us move in the right direction.

preacherwoman said...

“It would be much better if the church could align itself with that change and help to manage it as morally as possible with as little social fragmentation as possible.”
Yes, Erika. That is the crucial point! The Church has somehow got itself aligned with resistance to change, whereas its more radical thinkers have valuable insights into the real message of Christianity, which could help to smooth the path of change which would be beneficial to all.

I’ve recently been reading Jack Dominian’s “Proposals for a new Sexual Ethic”, written in 1977. If the RC Church, or any church, had taken his thoughts on board 35 years ago, we would be in a very different place in discussions on gay bishops and same sex marriage today.

18 February 2013 18:16
18 February 2013 18:07
18 February 2013 17:55
18 February 2013 17:46
savih said...

I think Erika makes some important points. I am also unconvinced that Christian attitudes to, and treatment of, women in the past can be categorised as uniform, any more than trends in today’s world. Tradition is diverse, and I hope we can build on what is best within itn while not being trapped by what is contrary to core Gospel values.

Lay Anglicana said...

Thank-you Savi. As you say, Christian attitudes to women cannot ever have been uniform. Although we believe there is good evidence of women’s ministry from the earliest days, there were probably complementarians around then too who felt they should be limited to the practical physical work of ‘ancillary workers’.

18 February 2013 21:50
18 February 2013 21:31
UKViewer said...

In my view, the meltdown of traditional church mirrors the change in society. You quiet rightly point out that the Church while predicated by Jesus Christ, is mainly in it’s institutional sense, a man-made construct.

The frightening thing for someone who is clinging to the shipwreck that is the church today, is that instead of floating majestically across time and space, it seems to be heading for the rocks or sinking ever faster. Clinging onto tradition is not the answer.

Having a flexible, changing attitude (forgive the pun) to change might be part of the solution to not keeping the church afloat as an institution, but a return to the roots of the early church. An alliance of local, community based groups, joining and worshiping together and using the gifts of each and shared resources for the greater good.

I see the development of local church plants as being in that sense part of it, but for me, the worrying development is that many of these are ultra-traditional or orthodox, seeking to preserve a microcosm of what the believe church was, is or should be. So traditional that they might almost be described as ‘flat earther’s.

The Holy Spirit might have the answers. It will blow us here and there upon a stormy sea of life – for us, it might be seizing those opportunities of sailing close to the wind, taking the risk of trying change, of bringing the life and vibrancy back into our lives to spread and share the good news of Jesus, not in the closed doors of a well preserved building, but daily in our common lives together. Are you up for the risk? Because I welcome it.

Lay Anglicana said...

I think you pinpoint part of the problem, UK Viewer, when you say that change is frightening. We used to run courses on the ‘management of change’ – in theory this was to train managers in managing change in their underlings, but the hidden agenda was to persuade the managers themselves that change was necessary!
As to whether I am up for the risk – I am tempted to reply, ‘well, I’m here, aren’t I?’! I have always been a conservative person (if you will believe that) but there is something immensely liberating about old age. We have much less to lose than our younger colleagues. What’s the worst that can happen? Well, that’s not that far off anyway. Tally ho!

Erika Baker said...

UK Viewer, I think your post made me understand something I had not understood before. If the church is your framework of reference, then everything is indeed disintegrating fast and it is very scary to see all your truths and certainties being laughed at, ridiculed and denied.

If, however, you see Christian values not in the institution but in the fruit of individual thoughts, movements, trends, people… then you can align yourself with those values, swing behind them and encourage them throughout society. It is less ordered, less structured, there is no single authority in control.

If I look at the world around me, there is great concern for animal welfare, for the environment, for international justice, for fairness. People don’t pursue those aims through the church and the people who pursue those aims are fragile and human themselves. They don’t fit the mould. And so we stand in our increasingly empty churches singing worthy hymns and feeling alienated from them.

The challenge is ours. And we have a great option here to bring some of our thinking to this, of our hopes, of what we rest our dreams on.

We are making the wrong things our enemies.
If I take gay people as an example – if you leave people cast aside as immoral and not worthy of polite society, they will live accordingly. Many get depressed, bullied, suicidal. What follows is risky behaviour – don’t we know it from all walks of life – if you marginalise people who help them to destroy themselves.
So scoop them up, bind them into the traditional framework of human interaction and relationships and you’ve helped to make it less likely that a whole group of people in our society suffers from mental illness, drifts into substance abuse and hedonism.

This argument is a complete no brainer – society has understood that a long long time ago and has increasingly done more and more to treat gay people as its brothers and sisters. With the result that gay people’s lives are no longer as they were 50 years ago, that they have become more and more integrated, stable, people with exactly the same aspirations as everyone else.

If only the church could see that! If only it could see that by looking at the underlying values, not the superficial divides, it could become such a force for good! And thereby also regain some of its relevance to everybody’s lives.

UKViewer said...

Thanks Erika, you also give me food for thought. Perhaps I’ll engage with this particular one via fb chat in the next day or so.

19 February 2013 21:29
19 February 2013 08:15
19 February 2013 07:52
19 February 2013 06:29

Hey Laura, thanks for engaging with me on this. I’ll put a substantive response on my blog, but for now I want to engage with your last point about ‘unintended and unforeseen consequences’ – part of what I’m trying to do is dig out what those consequences are likely to be, so that they can then be intended and foreseen.

Lay Anglicana said...

Thank-you Sam. I think the problem is that I do not believe the consequences can be foreseen. I know that theory about the butterfly’s wings in the rain forest having a ripple effect is now thought to be an exaggeration, but I believe that change in the Church of England is likely to have a series of effects, some minor and some major, rippling around the world throughout the Anglican Communion. I believe the Church thinks so also, which explains in part why they have been so anxious to prevent anything but the most minimal changes (what I would call ‘reforms’).

A group of learned people could put together the most complex model in the world and still not fully understand the workings of the Church of England, IMHO.

As a slightly frivolous aside, we had a running novella going in our forum about the Church of England Master Plan, based on the Mappa Mundi (see here)

19 February 2013 21:25
19 February 2013 18:29

Sorry, should have added – anyone who wants to know why I think society is headed down the tubes should read my book….

Lay Anglicana said...

Thank-you Sam. Your book would be ‘Let Us Be Human: Christianity For A Collapsing Culture‘?

Amazon’s book reviewer ‘Big Al’ says:

Norton has written a thoughtful and concise book on what he believes should be the focus of the churches for the next generations. Principally, the focus must be on the environmental crisis and dealing with exhausted resources – and not getting hung up on sexuality or what sort of genitals you need to be ordained. Getting this right means praying, but also decisive action. The book is easy to read but not simplistic and aimed at interested Christians. Definitely worth reading.

Erika Baker said...

I couldn’t agree more with that synopsis. Provided it’s not a “let’s ignore our own inequality mess and instead focus on what really matters” which is too often a nice way out of having to engage with the hot button issues. They are hot button for a reason – we cannot speak with a moral voice and be seen as a moral force in society if we treat women and gays as second class.

19 February 2013 21:18
19 February 2013 21:05
19 February 2013 18:31

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